We're back! All tanned, rested, and ready to tackle whatever life chooses to hurl our way. It was tough to drag ourselves away from the palm trees, sandy beaches, fruity tropical drinks by the pool, haute cuisine, and luxurious on-site spa, not to mention our own private butler (who seemed disappointed that we didn't need him very much). But the sound of a lonely cat, meowing in the empty Los Angeles apartment, drew us back -- that, and the fact that there were bugs. Big ones, small ones, and (most distressingly) bitey ones. After waking up two mornings in a row with fresh raised welts on my arms, I learned to keep the windows closed, even though I liked listening to the waves crashing on the shore at night.
I have no idea what kind of bug was doing the biting while I was blissfully slumbering, but I'll bet Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands would know. She was honored last week with the 2007 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for her work taking "a census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, germs and fungi with whom we share our beds each night." Apparently there's a whole teeming ecosystem of insects in Netherland beds, at least the ones van Bronswijk studied. Her research wasn't alone in being, um, honored with an Ig Nobel Prize. For instance, the Chemistry Prize went to Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan "for developing a way to extract vanillin --vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung." A Cambridge ice cream shop called Toscanini's created a new flavor in Yamamoto's honor: "Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist." No word on whether the vanilla flavoring was derived from cow dung.
But by far my favorite of this year's Ig Nobel honorees was the Medicine Prize, awarded to Brian Witcombe, a consulting radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal NHS Foundation Trust in England, and Dan Meyer, who heads the Sword Swallowers Association International, based in Antioch, Tennessee. They were honored "for their penetrating medical report, 'Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,'" which was published to almost no fanfare last December in the British Medical Journal -- maybe because it was Christmas and people were too busy swallowing Yorkshire pudding and opening prezzies to pay much attention to the findings.
For all its long history, very few published reports exist of related injuries from the practice of shoving sharp steel blades down one's throat -- perhaps there are only a little more than 100 sword swallowers worldwide, out of a population of some 6.6 billion people. So Witcombe set out to explore the various techniques and side effects of sword swallowing, with Meyer's help. Forty-six SSAI members participated in the study, having swallowed a combined 2000 swords over the prior three months. More than half (25) had swallowed more than one, five managed to swallow at least ten swords at a time, and one person achieved the whopping feat of swallowing 16 swords simultaneously.
This sort of thing can't possibly be free of peril. A news release last December reported that Witcombe and Meyer found, "Sword swallowers are more likely to sustain an injury -- such as a perforation of the esophagus -- if they are distracted or are using multiple or unusual swords." Mostly, the respondents suffered from a sore throat (or as they call it, "sword throat," such wags, those guys), generally from the multiple sword stunts, or swallowing odd-shaped blades such as curved sabers rather than straight ones. Lower chest pains were another common complaint -- the only remedy being not swallowing any swords for a few days. Sixteen had suffered some form of intestinal bleeding, and three had undergone surgery to repair injuries to their necks. One lacerated his pharynx, another slashed his esophagus -- he claimed to have been distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder -- and one unfortunate belly dancer suffered a major hemorrhage when three blades lodged in her esophagus unexpectedly "scissored," after an appreciative bystander shoved some dollar bills in her belt. His donation didn't come close to covering her medical expenses, which came close to $70,000. Not surprisingly, most sword swallowers have higher than average health care and medical costs. All it takes it one tiny slip-up, after all.
These injuries are quite real, and quite serious, because unlike many other sideshow novelty acts, sword swallowing is not a magician's illusion -- although there is a trick to it (more on that later). As the x-ray at left attests, sword swallowers really do maneuver that sharp metal blade down the hatch, past all kinds of vital organs. (You can see a really cool in-real-time x-ray here, and watch Meyer do his thing here and here -- at the latter link, he swallows seven swords at once! My throat hurts just thinking about it.)
Sword swallowing is an ancient art dating back to India before 2000 B.C., where it was used primarily as "a demonstration of divine union and power," per Wikipedia. Modern-day Indian fakirs still perform such feats, along with eating burning coals, swallowing snakes, and stopping their own pulse or raising their body temperatures through sheer will -- although not all such feats are genuine; many are illusions.
The art spread to China in the 8th century, then to Japan, where it found a home in Sangaku, that nation's acrobatic theater. It also found its way to Greece and Rome, and finally into Europe in the early Middle Ages, where it became a fixture of street performers. It languished a bit during the Dark Ages, in part thanks to persecution from the Inquisition, resurged briefly in the early 1800s, and then died out again as people lost interest in street theater. But a featured exhibition of sword swallowing at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought sword swallowing mania to America, where a whole new generation of performers emerged, making some fascinating innovations along the way: multiple swords, bayonets, hot swords, and glowing neon tubes, among other feats. Meyer is one of the best-known contemporary sword swallowers.
It takes practice, sometimes over many years, to develop sufficient skill for safe (relatively speaking) sword swallowing. The term is a bit of a misnomer, since swallowing is actually the last thing you want to do with a sharp blade, since it involves contraction of numerous muscles; instead, the idea is to completely relax the throat and turn it into one long "living scabbard." Essentially, sword swallowers have to figure out how to carefully align a sword with their upper esophageal sphincter -- a ring of muscle at the top end of the throat-- and straighten the pharynx, commonly achieved by hyper-extending the neck by tipping the head waaay back.
The practitioner must then move his tongue out of the way and consciously relax his throat as he "swallows" -- not an easy thing to do because of our involuntary gag reflex, the body's defense mechanism against swallowing foreign objects. Basically, there are nerve endings lining the back of the throat that can detect any intrusive, non-chewed-food objects, generating nerve impulses which neurons carry to the brain stem. The brain responds by using motor neurons to instruct the throat muscles to contract. The end result: you retch, sometimes vomiting, as the body attempts to force the unwanted object out of the throat and mouth.
On the way down, the sword straightens out the curve of the esophagus and nudges certain organs out of the way. Per the book Bizarre Medical Abnormalities, published in 1897:
"The instrument enters the mouth and pharynx, then the esophagus, traverses the cardiac end of the stomach, and enters the latter as far as the antrum of the pylorus, the small cul de sac of the stomach. In their normal state in the adult these organs are not in a straight line, but are so placed by the passage of the sword. In the first place they head is thrown back, so that the mouth is in the direction of the esophagus, the curves of which disappear or become less as the sword proceeds; the angle that the esophagus makes with the stomach is obliterated, and finally the stomach is distended in the vertical diameter and its internal curve disappears, thus permitting the blade to traverse the greater diameter of the stomach."
The same book also notes that sword swallowers proved vital to studying the human digestive system in the 19th century. Specifically, a Scottish physicist named Stevens had an assistant sword swallower down small metal tubes with holes in them, filled with pieces of meat. After a set interval of time, the acrobat would "disgorge" the tubes, and Stevens could study how much the meat had been digested. Also, in 1868, a sword swallower visited Freiburg, Germany, so impressing a local doctor named Keller that he examined the man's throat with a laryngeal mirror. His colleague, one Dr. Muller, is credited with first suggesting that such acrobats would make terrific subjects for esophagoscopy, because of their ability to voluntarily relax all the muscles in the throat at the same time. Another colleague, Adolph Kussmaul, actually performed the first successful esophagoscopy on the visiting sword swallower using a rudimentary endoscope (basically a straight tube), mirrors, and a gas lamp for illumination. The results were a bit disappointing because of the poor illumination, but it did lead to further improvements in the technique.
A famous sword and snake swallower of the mid-1800s, called Sallementro, claimed he learned his art at 17 from a friend; it took him three months. He tried starting with full-sized swords, but discovered "it made my swallow sore, very sore, and I used lemon and sugar to cure it." Apparently he was unable to eat anything, and subsisted on a liquid diet for two months until he'd mastered the trick. Knives, he found, were easier than swords because of the shorter length. "It was tight at first, and I kept pushing it down further and further." He recommended resisting the urge to cough (duh), and also oiled the blade to reduce the abrasion as it slides down the throat.
Snakes proved less tricky, although Sallementro was careful to "cut the stingers out, 'cos it might hurt you." He used 18-inch serpents, cleaned by scraping them with a cloth because otherwise the things tasted nasty. Unlike swords, snakes are quite helpful to the process, naturally inclined to seek out a dark hole down which to disappear -- unless the swallower coughs too much, in which case the snake seeks to escape back up the hatch. Sallementro said that swallowing snakes "tickles a little, but it don't make you want to retch." Speak for yourself, buddy.
Like Sallementro, Witcombe and Meyer's study found that many of the respondents had desensitized their gag reflex by starting with smaller objects and increasing the size over time. They started with their own fingers, then upgraded to spoons, paint brushes, knitting needles, bent wire coat hangers, and so forth, before attempting short knife blades and, finally, swords. Per Cecil Adams of Straight Dope fame, I learned that Dan Mannix, a retired carnival sword and flame swallower, wrote a memoir of his experiences in 1951, and reported that he definitely threw up the first few times he tried to overcome the involuntary gag reflex. Then he struggled with getting a sword down his throat because he couldn't... quite... relax. (Hmmm. Wonder why?) Eventually he succeeded, but said that he had to bend forward a bit halfway through the sword's passage to get it past his Adam's apple. He also occasionally struck his own breast bone with the sword, which apparently felt like a blow to the solar plexus, from the inside.
Many have emulated Sallementro and figured out that lubricating the blades with saliva or butter made it easier to slide them down their throats, although one admitted to retiring from the sport after developing a chronic "dry mouth" condition. The sides of the swords aren't sharp, but the tips are, as those who suffered ruptured stomachs (with the resulting peritonitis) can attest. Adams -- recognizing that there's always someone stupid enough to try this sort of thing at home, despite cautionary words -- recommends wiping the blade before and after swallowing: the first, to remove any dust which could trigger the gag reflex, and afterwards to remove stomach acid, which could corrode the blade's metal. (Neon tubes, by the way, have an added risk of shattering inside the throat, with seriously disabling and sometimes fatal effects.)
The gag reflex is also an impediment to aspiring competitive eaters, sometimes called "gurgitators." (Here's a video clip on the topic.) Back when I lived in New York City, every fourth of July, on Coney Island, Nathan's held its annual hot dog eating contest, which garnered a good share of TV coverage. Maybe it was a fascination with the sight of all those people stuffing hot dogs in their faces in such a short span of time, because for five years' running, the outcome was almost a given. The winner all five of those years was Takeru Kobayashi, an internationally renowned gurgitator who holds the world record for eating hot dogs: 53-3/4 hot dogs with buns,consumed in a mere 12 minutes. That's a staggering 12,500 calories in a single sitting. Compare that to the USDA recommended caloric intake for an adult male: 2300 calories. Kobayashi won the event from 2001 to 2006, only being deposed this past summer by some guy named Joey Chestnut. But there are lots of other eating competitions held all over the world every year, many of them sponsored by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE).
Gurgitators have some specific strategies, such as dipping contest food in a glass of water, thereby softening and lubricating it so it does down that much easier -- similar to how some sword swallowers lubricate their blades before swallowing. It's also advisable to break food into smaller pieces before eating it, so you can fit more in your mouth and cut down on chewing time. Kobayashi breaks a hot dog in half and stuffs both halves into his mouth at once (buns are always eaten separately). But ultimately, the best competitive eaters seem to have an innate ability -- if such is the word -- for over-eating, thanks to suppression of the gag reflex, better stomach elasticity, and (more mysteriously), suppressing the usual signals the stomach sends out to indicate it is full.
Like sword swallowers, competitive eaters are able to relax all the muscles that line the esophagus simultaneously, turning it into a hollow pipe. Another key is stomach elasticity: it's not the size of someone's stomach, but how much it can expand in order to adapt to the huge amount of food coming in. So gurgitators often "train" by chugging gallons of water in a short period of time to stretch the stomach, or eat huge amounts of cabbage (low-calorie, high-fiber) because it stays in the stomach longer before breaking down. Thats also why fatter isn't necessarily better. The prevailing theory is that excess fat pushes against the stomach and limits how much it can expand. So the best competitive eaters tend to be on the thinner side. It shouldn't be surprising that, as with sword swallowing, there are inherent dangers to competitive eating: vomiting (which damages the esophagus and tooth enamel from the stomach acids that arise), heartburn, gas, and high risk of choking, stomach rupture, or swallowing bones, which can injure the intestines. The IFOCE discourages "training," in part because drinking those huge amounts of water can perforate the stomach lining, or lead to a potentially fatal condition known as water intoxication.
When food empties into the small bowel, this triggers a hormonal stimulus telling the brain that it is sated, making it very uncomfortable to continue eating beyond that point -- unless you have a natural (or learned) ability to dampen or block those signals. That seems to be the case with the best competitive eaters, which is why gastrointestinal specialists are interested in studying such people in hopes of applying the new knowledge to combat over-eating and obesity. It could also lead to breakthroughs in treatment for chronic dyspepsia, in which people feel bloated and in pain after eating only a modest meal because something triggers the stomach to send a discomfort signal to the brain prematurely. and it could help with treating more serious compulsive eating disorders, such as that featured in an episode of C.S.I.: a man feels so compelled to eat that he must be kept chained to a chair and watched at all times, because once he starts eating, he is incapable of stopping. One day he escapes, and after placing second at a local eating competition, finds his way to one of the many Vegas casino buffets, and literally eats himself to death: his stomach distends so much that it crushes the rest of his internal organs, and he dies in a back alley -- with, it must be said, a big smile on his face. Sated at last, albeit in death.
I eagerly await an Ig Nobel worthy study of the gastrointestinal effects of competitive eating; it'd be a nice complement to the whole sword swallowing thing. But in the meantime, congrats to physicists Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg for winning this year's bona fide Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect -- about which we will be blogging about in the next couple of days.